THE term “incel”, an abbreviation of “involuntary celibate”, emerged in the early days of online forums nearly three decades ago, allowing people of all genders who had struggled to find romantic and sexual connection to discover a sense of community and mutual understanding.

Gradually, and then suddenly, this contorted into something altogether more troubling, as groups which came to be overwhelmingly male directed their increasingly hostile attentions towards women as the source of their problems.

One year ago, 22-year-old Gabrielle Friel, an admitted admirer of Californian incel idol and mass murderer Elliot Rodger, was sentenced at the High Court in Edinburgh for terrorism offences after being found in possession of a crossbow and machete.

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Davison and Friel

Eight months later, Jake Davison, also aged 22 and an active participant on incel Reddit forums, killed five people, then himself, in Plymouth.

Now, new research from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) has revealed a 600% increase in traffic to incel websites in the UK between April and November last year – and women’s rights advocates say the trend is concerning.

“This research reminds us not to underestimate the scale and harm done by misogyny”, says Dr Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid.

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While incel communities are primarily an online phenomenon, Scott says the implications form part of a wider problem. “We know from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey that stereotypical attitudes about gender roles, for example, notions that men have a 'right' to sex with women, link to tolerance of violence against women. And we know from survivors that the abuse women, children and young people experience, weaves both on and offline.”

For Scottish Women’s Aid and other feminist organisations, part of the solution, at least, is legislative action from the Scottish Parliament. A working group has been set up by the Scottish Government to consider the introduction of a criminal offence of misogynistic behaviour, and will report on its findings next month.

Scott says she would see this as “one step to counter abusive behaviour perpetrated inside and outside of digital spaces”.

Filipa Melo Lopes (below), a lecturer in social and political philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, has written about the motivations behind incel violence and misogyny. She believes that tackling the problem would require the men who are drawn to these groups to look inward to cultivate “healthy senses of competition and fair play, personal responsibility, and humility”.

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“Despite the fact that incels talk obsessively about women, looking closely at incel murderers like Rodger and Davison reveals that their struggle is mainly not with women, but with themselves,” she argues.

READ MORE: 'Incel' community and extreme misogyny a 'threat to all women'

While Melo Lopes suggests the increase in web traffic is likely a result of the Plymouth shooting, she adds that the pandemic might also have “contributed to widening the gap between many men’s self-conceptions and their daily lives”.

An intense sense of dissatisfaction and disaffection is commonly recognised as a driving factor in the attitudes and behaviours of self-identified incels, but the matter of how to unpick or even prevent this is trickier.

Max Lasse Schaefer’s PhD research at the University of Edinburgh seeks to identify what might encourage men to exit from incel groups, which he notes are “suicide-idolising” and harmful to the men who join them.

In order to understand these communities, Schaefer says we need to understand the “three Ps: push, pull, and personal experiences”.

What typically pushes men to these groups, he explains, is a sense of “alienation” from the wider society. What pulls them in is often a “feeling of belonging” and “higher purpose”. And the personal experiences motivating them tend to link to feelings of “loneliness” – although Schaefer points out that the anonymous nature of these spaces means that detailed research into the experiences of those involved is difficult.

With all this in mind, Schaefer believes the solution is to “provide what these groups provide in an alternative way”, with the help of men who have chosen to leave the groups. In contrast, Schaefer warns against "censorship”, or forms of public education or media coverage which “demonise” the individuals involved – this, he argues, is likely to lead the men to “feel further misunderstood” and embed deeper polarisation.

Davy Thompson (below), campaign director of White Ribbon Scotland (which engages men and boys to end violence against women) agrees there is a danger that in “trying to directly challenge ‘incel culture’ we drive more young men who feel disenfranchised into researching this and ending up in an online echo chamber”.

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Instead, he suggests “a more general approach” – for example, by discussing with men the societal attitudes which “suggest that there are particular characteristics which young men need to aspire to if they are to be accepted as ‘real’ men”.

Thompson says a failure to meet “impossible” criteria presented in entertainment and advertising can leave men feeling “inadequate”.

White Ribbon Scotland encourages men to understand that gender equality can help people of all genders. “By establishing equality we get to be more open and throw aside the rule book men are supposed to follow. We can be ourselves,” Thompson adds.

Although incel ideology frames itself in direct opposition to feminism, the men it appeals to might be surprised to learn how much they have in common with feminists. “Often the root that drives men into men’s rights activism movements are the same sorts of things that drive women into feminism,” says Alys Mumford of women’s policy organisation Engender.

“We see that the world is unequal – but it’s about where the blame is placed. Incel ideology blames women for society’s problems, for their problems, and feminists identify patriarchal structure as the cause of the problem,” she adds.

To change this, Mumford (below) says we have to start by “acknowledging that it’s not all in their heads that the world is bad”. From there, a conversation can begin about how to shift the focus onto the systemic issues.

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Also essential, in Mumford’s view, is understanding the wider context in which the rise of these groups is taking place. “We’ve also seen a lot of other hateful ideologies rise in the UK and in Scotland. We see it across Europe, where people are becoming more comfortable identifying with far-right ideologies, and that’s massively mixed in with the backlash against women.”

Despite this, Mumford says there is a serious underestimation of the issue. “You talk to politicians and educators and they do not believe the scale of the problem. It’s seen either as something that happens in America exclusively, or it’s seen as a joke, or as something that happens only among a handful of men.”

In reality, she says organisations working on gender equality issues in schools are increasingly hearing support for incel “lines” from pupils. Education Scotland has recently begun offering training to teachers in "understanding incel ideology".

“It needs to be acknowledged as a problem and as a threat to women; as a potential movement that can cause threat to life,” Mumford says.

There are already high-profile examples from around the world and closer to home of how radicalisation into misogynistic groups can have fatal consequences – for women and men.

From criminal justice, to men engaging their peers and hearing from those who’ve been “de-radicalised”, to finding commonality with women’s equality movements, there are lots of ideas on how to curb this rising tide. The question now is whether we can act before it’s too late.